Program Notes: The Right Stuff (1983)
From the vantage point of 30 years, it is now possible to see Phil Kaufman’s The Right Stuff as one of the best films of the Eighties, a funny/inspiring slice of Americana filled with macho men (they of the “right stuff”), the new adventure of space exploration and a cast of charismatic newcomers, almost all of whom would go on to be household names today.
The film was based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book about the early days of NASA and the “space race” which in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s pitted the Yanks against the Soviets for control of the great beyond (as if any country could “own” the cosmos).
One of the remarkable things about Kaufman’s adaptation (previously he had written and directed The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Wanderers, and contributed to the screenplay of Raiders of the Lost Ark) is that it succeeds dramatically despite not having a central character.
Instead, this is a true ensemble effort with none of the bigger-than-life personalities depicted dominating the proceedings, although all have their moments.
Actually there is one actor who comes close to being the main character, but not in any traditional way. In his fifth major film role Sam Shepard made an indelible impression – and got an Oscar nomination – for his portrayal of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager.
Yeager wasn’t an astronaut (he was shut out by NASA because he was too old school – lacking a college degree), but he as much as any other character represents the “right stuff,” the blend of guts and intelligence so highly prized by the early astronauts. After all, these guys weren’t eggheads and scientists – they were rocket jockeys who lived for the thrill.
It’s significant that Kaufman chose to open the film with Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947 and to close the film with Yeager’s disastrous, near fatal crash of a test plane in the mid-60s.
In a sense Yeager is The Right Stuff’s true hero, a guy whose glory was eclipsed by that of the NASA flyboys but who kept plugging along, risking his neck day after day, year after year.
Interestingly enough, Tom Wolfe disowned the film, saying it toyed too much with the facts and downplayed the contribution of the original Mercury astronauts in order to extol the virtues of Yeager.
Nevertheless, The Right Stuff racked up glowing reviews and fared well at the 1983 Oscars, winning for sound effects, sound, editing and original score and pulling down nominations for supporting actor (Shepard), art direction, cinematography and picture.
Kaufman was active over the ensuing decade, giving us The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June and Rising Sun. In recent year’s he has directed only two films – Quills in 2000 and Twisted in 2004.
See Bob's general introduction to the Fool for Cinema film series.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.